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Oxford comma debate central to $10 million court case

Sometimes a little punctuation goes a long way.


Monica Riese

Internet Culture

Someone has finally answered the rhetorical Vampire Weekend question of “who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?”: dairy truck drivers.

In a ruling handed down earlier this week, a judge declared that, “for want of a comma,” the laws governing overtime pay in Maine were sufficiently ambiguous as to include a class of delivery drivers who thought they were eligible for overtime and were suing for four years’ worth of time-and-a-half pay.

In case you snoozed through a few years of English class, the Oxford (sometimes called serial) comma is the final one before the conjunction in a list of items. In many cases, sentences read the same with or without, as one describing the flag as “red, white, and blue” or “red, white and blue.” But in other sentences, the lack of a comma can introduce some serious confusion. Consider this popular example:


There’s a pretty big difference between implying Hitler and Stalin were strippers and merely saying you saw them in the same place as two strippers. (I am not invited to parties like that, probably because I write articles like these.) In any case, people feel passionately about both positions, with the anti-comma side saying the comma is unnecessary and the pro-comma side saying it prevents ambiguity even if it isn’t always necessary. For the record, we here at the Daily Dot err on the side of caution and include it in our writing.

As the law in Maine reads, the following activities are exempt from overtime pay: “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.”

The drivers argued that the lack of a comma between “shipment” and “or” meant that last phrase entailed only packing (for either shipment or distribution) rather than packing for shipment and distribution as two separate tasks. Since they’re only involved in the distribution step, the drivers found a loophole of legalese by which they were indeed entitled to overtime pay.

I’m no lawyer, but we’ve really got two problems here: The lack of a comma provides some confusion, but the fact that it’s not part of a complete sentence deepens that issue. If it were part of a sentence, you’d hear a pause where a conjunction should be before “packing for shipment or distribution of” as one item. Both problems would be resolved by minimizing the legalese and saying something more straightforward or breaking the sentence in two.

The New York Times estimates this error could cost the company some $10 million in damages, so don’t be surprised if more companies start giving a fuck about the Oxford comma really soon.

H/T the Guardian

The Daily Dot